The Role of Sovereignism for European Radical/Extreme Right Parties

In the last month, European countries witnessed a series of events that reinforce the surge of radical and extreme right movements, such as the rise of Vox as the third political force in Spain, the independence march of nationalism in Poland, or recent Italian polls predicting that radical right parties might reach 51.5% in the next national election. These political developments offer us the opportunity to turn our attention again towards those political parties that identify themselves to the right of the moderate right-wing.

To define radical or extreme right parties, recent literature offers a plethora of labels, but a ground definition that can be representative for all of them seems difficult to achieve. Nationalist, extremist, neo-fascist or neo-Nazi, nativist or anti-immigrant, chauvinist, Eurosceptic, anti-European, xenophobic, anti-establishment, and populist are some of the most used connotations. A maximum definition based on the greatest common denominator could be the notion of “sovereignism”.

What does sovereignism mean?

The notion of sovereignism might be identified as a political theory in contrast to socialism and liberalism. Today, sovereignism could signal a return to the past. History does not develop in linear pathways, as stated by Giambattista Vico; instead, it develops in corsi (linear routes) and ricorsi (circular routes).  We are indeed going through a period in which radical/extreme right political parties are reclaiming their national identity and national institutions, by supporting the clash between people who identify themselves with national authorities and people who identify with transnational authorities. Even though sovereignism appears similar to Mudde’s definition of populism (a dichotomist division between people vs. elite), the notion cuts across both the people and the elite. It leads to a new polarization, which goes beyond the social categories by involving a broad segment of the population who might belong to both the people and the elite.

Although there is no equivalent of “sovereignism” in the English language, it is possible to find this term in Italian (sovranismo) or in French (souverainisme). For instance, the Italian encyclopaedia Treccani proposed in 2017 the following broad definition: ‘a political position that advocates the defence or reconquest of national sovereignty by the people or the state, in contrast to the dynamics of globalization and in opposition to supranational concertation policies’. More specifically, the French encyclopaedia Larousse states that it ‘takes the form of a protest against a European integration that would lead to the disappearance of nation-states and consecrate the advent of the United States of Europe’.

Where does sovereignism in the EU come from?

The concept of sovereignism developed alongside the European integration process early on. In the 1960s, the “empty chair crisis”, escalated in a clash of principles between French President De Gaule and other member states about the political function of the European Commission. De Gaule had a clear vision of French officials in Europe: they cannot be supranational since they are not elected directly by the people, but it is the current government that selects them. As a result, the Commission is not a representative body and therefore French officials must faithfully respond to the needs of their national government.

Eventually, this concept started to become more commonly known in European political discourse due to a new historical juncture, which fractured the Western European party system: the ‘Maastricht Treaty (1993) [which] extended EU authority over wide ranges of public life’.  Moreover, the debt crisis in the late 2000s, and the migration crisis beginning in 2015, emphasised the debate on European integration at the core of new political parties’ agenda. Since mainstream political parties were not able to find collective compromises at the supranational level about financial stability of the Eurozone, a common migratory policy, or a common foreign policy, this acerbated the relationship between European institutions and European member states.

Does sovereignism define radical/extreme right parties?

The pivotal role of the 2019 European elections in the development of sovereignism is threefold. First is voter turnout. Voter turnout in European parliament elections from 1979 to 2014 has decreased. Yet, in 2019, after forty years, it is the first time that there has been an increase in voter turnout for European elections (from 42.6% in 2014 to almost 51% in 2019). This picture is important because it reinforces the role of the European Parliament in national political debates.

Secondly, the new composition of the European parliament underlines a change of new political balances at both European and national levels. Once again, for the first time in European Parliament history, the two biggest parties (European People’s Party and Socialists & Democrats) no longer have the absolute majority. This is significant because it has led to an alliance between these two historical parties with the European political groups of Renew Europe and Greens/European Free Alliance bounded by the advancement of the political European integration process.

And finally, this new political coalition in the European Parliament leads to the identification of an antithetical political pole which, despite clear defeat in the 2019 European elections, is now experiencing a strong media/political resonance focusing on the concept of sovereignism: the political parties belonging to the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) and the Identity and Democracy Group (ID). Indeed, through the political space gained at the European level, the establishment of this new political pole normalises and strengths the arguments of radical/extreme right parties.

Is sovereignism relevant today?

The use of the term sovereignism is especially applied to southern European countries such as Italy (Prima gli italiani! – Italians first!) and in France (Les francais d’abord ! – French first!). However, in western and northern European countries the concept is spreading – e.g. the Brexit process among Leavers vs. Remainers in the United Kingdom.

The conceptualisation of sovereignism is useful within academic debate in order to map different political parties that can be identified in the domain of radical/extreme right parties, going beyond the definition of populism (which has been abused in the more recent literature). Moreover, the rising spread of this sentiment might also explain why traditional political parties are gradually experiencing a constant decline of political support.

Mr Alessio Scopelliti is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. See his profile here.

© Alessio Scopelliti. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).